Sparrows in Central Virginia

Our car pulled into the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, an eerie, run-down motel overlooking Rockfish Gap. This motel is home to the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch, where birders gather to witness the spectacle of hawk migration.

Baxter, Tucker, Drew, and I noticed Ezra and his brother, along with some other field trip goers, staring up at the towering sign for the motel, which was situated in the center of the parking lot. The sign itself had fallen off, revealing the lights that previously illuminated the words “Inn at Afton”.

We stepped out of the car and found that they were watching a group of warblers roosting inside the sign, attracted to the beacon of light as they migrated down the spine of the Blue Ridge. After snatching our binoculars and cameras, we returned to the sign and began to identify all the warblers.

We found many yellowthroats, Tennessee Warblers, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, as well as a handful of parulas, Blackpoll Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Black-throated Green Warblers.

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Tennessee Warblers (Photo by Tucker Beamer)

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Bay-breasted Warbler

The most notable species were a somewhat late Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Nashville Warbler, both hopping around on the sign’s beams.

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Nashville Warbler with a Northern Parula  (Photo by Tucker Beamer)

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

After the frenzy of warblers faded out (we had ten species in the sign), we enjoyed the beautiful sunrise and returned to the parking lot, where we found many deceased Common Yellowthroats and Black-throated Blue Warblers on the asphalt, most likely a result of the sign.

We departed from the Inn and arrived at Rockfish Valley Trail almost a half-hour later. We walked the trail to the field, where we found a White-crowned Sparrow.

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White-crowned Sparrow

We continued on the trail that circled the field, hearing many Swamp Sparrows and Song Sparrow calling from the thickets. A few revealed themselves in flight, as they flitted from one reed to the nearby brambles. One Swamp Sparrow was quite cooperative.

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Swamp Sparrow

As we passed the bog, Baxter and I noticed a very gray sparrow clinging to a stalk, and with a fleeting view in the binoculars, it quickly retreated to the grasses from which it came: a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

No one else saw it, so we walked down the trail in hopes of refinding it. Ezra continued ahead and called “Lincoln’s!” We ran quickly in hopes of all seeing it, but arrived to find that the bird flew off. Frustrated, we decided to make another loop around the field and check out another field near the road.

After finishing the loop to no avail, we walked the bridge over a brook and started looking around. I then spotted a Lincoln’s posing on a sycamore, and everyone was finally able to get a good look and photos. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to snag a photo.

We took a quick look at Spruce Creek Park, hearing another White-crowned Sparrow and seeing a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. Finding nothing else, we made our way back to the cars.

On our way back, we found another Lincoln’s Sparrow skulking around in some brush. This one was a lot closer and allowed for better viewing. We appreciated the gray face, buffy malar, and fine streaks on the breast. I also noticed some little spots on the rear end of the flanks, a feature of the species I had never noticed.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow

Other notable species were a Merlin flyover, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Belted Kingfisher, and Palm Warblers, which were quite abundant. As late morning arrived, we decided that Swananoa would be more productive.

Swananoa. A mountaintop mansion just south of the Inn at Afton, with Route 610 lining its ridge. The road is one of the best spots for migrant passerines around. We arrived, finding Cape May Warblers, Palm Warblers, Pine Warblers, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Although the warblers were great, we were here to see a Gray-cheeked Thrush, which neither Ezra or I had seen this year. We walked down the road to an area with a more dense canopy, and began to see a good number of thrushes feeding on the Summer Grapes along the road. The grapes were ripe, so we gave them a taste and understood the reason why there were so many thrushes around.

We walked down the road feasting on grapes, and were surprised by the large numbers of Wood Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers; it was getting a bit late for them. Blue-headed Vireos and Swainson’s Thrushes were everywhere, as well as good numbers of Hermits.

We continued on the road, and enjoyed a low flyover of two Common Ravens. Many unidentified thrushes were flushed, and we watched them fly down the ridge and out of view: oh, the pain of leaving “15 thrush sp.” on an eBird checklist. This continued for a long time, and we were starting to get frustrated by the lack of Gray-cheeked Thrushes.

We gave up and returned to Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch in a thick fog, where we found some more warblers and a Red-headed Woodpecker flyover.

We decided to head to Old Trail, where a Clay-colored Sparrow had been sighted the previous day. Doubtful that the bird was around, we arrived in the heat of midday, and walked out to a patch of Pokeweed.

We split up and started looking around, and after a few minutes, Baxter called “I’ve got the Clay-colored!” I ran quickly, anxious to see the bird, but by the time everyone had arrived, the bird had retreated into the thickets. A bit nervous, we waited a few minutes and tried pishing the bird out. Thankfully, the little guy hopped out and perched for a few seconds, offering some fantastic views.

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Clay-colored Sparrow, lifer!

A perfect end to the trip, we returned to the car.

Baxter, Tucker, Drew, and I were picked up by Baxter and Tucker’s mom, and we stopped at Mud House for a quick drink and snack, and headed to McIntire Marsh, where we hoped to snag one last sparrow for the daylist, a Savannah Sparrow.

We arrived and immeadietly saw one perched in a tree. We walked around and checked the marsh for Marsh Wrens, with no luck. On our way back to the parking lot, we got some better views of the Savannah in the field.

A succesful day of nine sparrow species and a lifer!

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Birding Pocosin Cabin and Skyline Drive

The Blue Ridge Young Birders met at the Barnes and Noble parking lot, where we crammed into a few cars and headed north on 29. We went through the park gate and hopped onto Skyline Drive, the scenic road lining the backbone of the Shenandoah National Park’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

The cool mountain air felt refreshing after a long, hot summer. After passing many scenic overlooks of the Valley and Appalachian Mountains in the distance, we arrived at the fire road and parked. The lot was situated in the middle of a large woodland, but we continued down the trail, and after several minutes of walking the bird activity increased.

We approached the clearing where Pocosin Cabin was situated, and found a plethora of thrushes, warblers, and vireos. The log cabin was built in 1937 and has been frequently used by visitors and AT hikers every since.

Swainson’s Thrushes, Blue-headed Vireos, and Tennessee Warblers were the most numerous, as well as the Bay-breasted and Blackpoll Warblers. We also saw a Northern Parula, a Blackburnian Warbler, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. As we were watching a posing Yellow-billed Cuckoo, I spotted a vireo with a yellow throat and undertail coverts and a snow-white belly: a Philadelphia Vireo. The bird quickly flew away, and only a few were able to see it.

Hoping to find another, we continued down the trail and enjoyed watching a posing Black-throated Blue Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Minutes later, the Philly Vireo was refound and offered the whole group stunning views. He flitted around in the trees and hid from my camera, but Ezra got a very nice photo.

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Philadelphia Vireo (Photo by Ezra Staengl)

The group continued down the trail, finding lots of Jewelweed: great Connecticut Warbler habitat. The herpers (Carson and Robert) started turning rocks along the brook, finding several salamander species, including Red-backed (both the red-backed and lead-backed phases) and Southern Two-lined.

 

We also found several sizable Northern Dusky Salamanders:

 

On our way back, we saw some Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Black-and-white Warbler. We returned to the parking lot, all satisfied with our Philadelphia Vireo, which was a lifer for several and a Virginia Yearbird for many.

Kiptopeke Challenge 2017

Our car pulled into the parking lot of Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach an hour before dusk. Tomorrow, Baxter, Gabriel, and I will be participating in the Kiptopeke Challenge: a big day fundraising event for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory.

We enjoyed the beautiful saltmarsh and tall grass fields dotted with windswept pines, and walked the sandy trails, birding it slowly and thoroughly. We heard a Palm Warbler calling in the brush. Being Piedmont and Valley birders, it always takes a while to get into the mindset of Coastal Plain birding. We scanned a tern flat and found many Royals and several Caspians. A flock of shorebirds flew overhead and resulted in a three-way debate of the species: we finally agreed that they were Lesser Yellowlegs. We had another flyover, this time Cattle Egrets.

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Cattle Egrets

As we continued along the trail we heard several Clapper Rails. A search in the grasses for Seaside Sparrows proved unsuccessful. Suddenly, we flushed a medium-sized peep from the mudflat and it gave an insect-like flight call as it flew into the sun. Our initial impression of White-rumped Sandpiper was proven correct after a quick check on Merlin Bird ID.

We finished walking the trail, seeing Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a Tricolored Heron.

After arriving at the Quality Inn, we unpacked our things, satisfied with a good hour of birding. Baxter and I got settled into the room and ate dinner with Gabriel, discussing the final plans of tomorrow’s big day. After dinner, Gabriel returned to his room where his dad Daniel was already asleep, preparing to drive us for 18 hours tomorrow.

I set my alarm for 3:20 am and turned off the lamp in our room at 9:30 pm.

Three hours later, I still hadn’t fallen asleep. The adrenaline before a day of birding often results in trouble falling asleep, but never this bad.

Big Day

Awaken by my blaring alarm with three hours of sleep under my belt, I showered and ate breakfast: an apple, a Cliff Bar, and a shot of Mi0 Energy in my water.

At 3:57 we departed from the hotel with haste, Arriving at Pleasure House Point five minutes later. Before the car had stopped we were exiting with binoculars in hand. The stars were in small numbers due to light pollution, and every couple seconds a seep was heard overhead: the sounds of migrating warblers. Once we snatched our daybirds Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Clapper Rail, and Mallard, we sprinted to the car and set off for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the 18-mile bridge-tunnel that spans from Virginia Beach to the very tip of the Eastern Shore.

We stopped on first island off of the bridge, a 5-acre rarity magnet composed of asphalt and concrete lined with rocks along the edge. Here, we picked up a single Ruddy Turnstone, some Sanderlings, Rock Pigeon, and a couple of the common gull species.

Ten minutes ahead of schedule, we continued across the remainder of the bridge and over Fisherman’s Island, finally hitting the very tip of the Eastern Shore.

Within a few minutes we were sitting at the picnic table at the Kiptopeke SP Hawkwatch Platform. The stars were more numerous and shining brighter than I had ever seen; we weren’t in Virginia Beach anymore. As we watched the shooting stars, a Great Horned Owl called from the woods, our team mascot. After hearing the the Veery’s distinctive veer flight call, a Green Heron squawking, and dozens of warblers passing overhead, we departed for Magotha Road.

Due to the close proximity of hotspots in southern Northampton county, we arrived at Magotha five minutes later. There we heard two more Great Horns giving their short yelping call. A single Marsh Wren was heard in the saltmarsh.

After another five minutes, we drove down Ramp Road in Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR and parked at the dock. Here we would wait for the break of dawn. We had a good sized flight of Swainson’s Thrushes as the sky turned in to a fiery red. The scenery was truly breathtaking.

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Dawn

We walked from the lot onto the dock, seeing several bats and a Common Nighthawk, a good bird for the Kiptopeke Challenge. As the sun rose so did the waders, and we saw large flocks of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and White Ibis. Primarily silhouettes, I got better at identifying waders in flight. Eight Black-crowned Night-Herons were also perched on a nearby cedar. Gabriel spotted a Peregrine and a Merlin bolting over the saltmarsh, as well as a Northern Harrier soaring above. Several Bobolinks were seen and heard flying overhead. Baxter and I also saw a probable Seaside Sparrow, but we were never able to confirm. Another noteworthy bird was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak calling in the brush. We left hastily, remembering we needed to be at Sunset Beach (a small resort on the bay side), for the morning flight.

During fall migration, songbirds migrating down the Atlantic Coast will funnel into the Delmarva Peninsula, migrating down until they hit the Chesapeake Bay. These birds then turn around and head north, often stopping in Sunset Beach for the morning.

We entered the resort and parked. The three of us walked through the trailer park, seeing Killdeer, another daybird. We made our way to a clearing near the beach, where many birders were present to watch this spectacle, most of which were participating in the challenge, such as Team Turnstone, which included Ezra and Theo Staengl, as well as Baxter’s younger brother Tucker Beamer.  We gathered at a clearing which was lined with Live Oak and Shortleaf Pines, and were immediately breathtaken by the sheer number of warblers pouring from the sky and moving northward through the trees. Ned Brinkley later described this as a “trickle” compared to a large flight from several days before.

The three of us first attempted to identify the birds as they accumulated in the trees, but we quickly learned that that was impossible, and we resorted to identifying the warblers in flight. The idea of identifying each bird in flight within a mere second seemed overwhelming, and it would’ve been impossible without the other teams there for assistance. To add to the stress, the Kiptopeke Challenge rules stated that at least two members of a team needed to see a bird for it to be counted, and 95% of the birds needed to be seen by all members.

As dozens of warblers flew through the clearing at a time, I eventually mastered the identification of parulas, redstarts, and magnolias, as they were by far the most common of species. The air was filled with the sounds of dozens of seep flight calls. I found the challenge and quick speed of identification thrilling, and identified several distinctive species, such as Northern Waterthrush, and Blackburnian, Black and White, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, and Prairie Warblers. Mixed in with warblers were great numbers of Northern Flickers, as well as some Eastern Wood-Pewees, Blue Grosbeaks, a Baltimore Oriole, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers.

As a big push of warblers came through, we all saw a passerine flying away, as it gave a light wink call, which reminded local birding expert Ned Brinkley of a Lark Bunting, a bird native to Great Plains, and with a check online, the call matched perfectly. No one got a good visual on the bird, so it was left simply as a probable Lark Bunting: the bird that got away.

This amazing experience lasted for another thirty minutes, and we saw a total of 17 warbler species, including my long awaited yearbird Tennessee Warbler. Unfortunately, Gabriel was the only one on the team to see a Bay-breasted Warbler, so we weren’t able to include that on the daylist.

Once the warblers started to dissipate, we chose to return to Kiptopeke SP Hawkwatch Platform, where we got our daybirds American Kestrel, Red-eyed Vireo, and Tufted Titmouse, a fairly uncommon bird on the shore.

We returned to Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR and found it to be quite dead, so we drove back to Magotha Road, where we dipped on Eurasian Collared Dove, but saw 7 kestrels, an Eastern Phoebe, a Belted Kingfisher, a Least Sandpiper, a flock of 25 Forster’s Terns, and several House Finches, another uncommon bird on the Eastern Shore.

Having finished birding southern Northampton, we drove north on 13, stopping at the Cape Charles Beachfront, where we snagged Sandwich and Common Tern, as well as a large flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Jumping back onto the Atlantic side, we stopped at Oyster and saw three Spotted Sandpipers, a flock of Tree Swallows, and a group of Little Blue Herons flying above. We then drove two minutes to Cheriton Landfill, where we saw the first state record Lucy’s Warbler in January. There we found a Pied-billed Grebe and a Ring-necked Duck on the pond, as well as a Yellow Warbler, and Savannah, Grasshopper, and Field Sparrows in the brushy field down the dirt road. A Cooper’s Hawk flying low relieved the stress that we would miss one for the day. We also got two more woodpeckers, Red-headed and Red-bellied, as well as amazing views of some Bobolinks.

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Digibinned Bobolink (I left my camera in the car)

Baxter and Gabriel also saw a Horned Lark, which I never got my eyes on. A very productive stop, with 11 new species! We still hadn’t seen a Song Sparrow, which was quite concerning.

We birded Willis Wharf, a great spot for shorebirds at high tide, when no mudflats were visible. I was at the car when Baxter and Gabriel called me, so I ran up and looked in the scope, seeing a gorgeous Whimbrel standing in a tiny sliver of exposed mud. The bird flew off shortly to find a better mudflat to stand on.

We dropped by Eyre Hall, a weird gravel road lined with Crape Myrtles and Eastern Red Cedars, and expansive fields of soybeans on either side. Lots of chippers were on the road, as well as a Black-throated Green Warbler, another warbler missed at Sunset Beach. As we turned onto 13, a Pileated Woodpecker flew overhead.

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The Great Horns at Eyre Hall

Our long drive to Saxis WMA began, and after entering Accomack County, we stopped on the side of the road where we found a good number of hawks and gulls soaring on the thermals. We then hawkwatched for almost half an hour, seeing many raptors, including a Peregrine, a Broad-winged Hawk (daybird!), and some Northern Harriers.

Baxter and I drank root beer and Coke in the car until we arrived at Saxis. We drove slowly down the road staring at the endless saltmarsh, and I spotted a small brown ammodramus flying alongside the car, and Gabriel managed to get his binoculars on it, noting an orange face—a Saltmarsh Sparrow, our best bird so far! we got out and birded the road, seeing another probable Seaside Sparrow. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring in the distance showed off it’s brilliant brick-red tail. We also heard a Hairy Woodpecker calling and a White-eyed Vireo singing in the woods, as well as some Forster’s Terns on the dock.

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Forster’s Tern

We then crossed the Delmarva Peninsula, and hit the Atlantic side once again, seeing an Eastern Meadowlark along the way. We took the road over Queen Sound, and saw some American Oystercatchers in the marsh and Boat-tailed Grackles on the billboards. On the drive to Tom’s Cove, we stopped to see the Chincoteague Ponies.

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We arrived at the beach and started birding the cove side, where we saw Piping Plovers: an adorable little bird I had only seen once before.

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Piping Plover

We also saw a good number of Red Knots and Caspian Terns, as well as two Willets. We continued along the beach and found a nice flock of shorebirds with several Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Western Sandpiper, a Virginia lifer for me. The longer bill stuck out amongst the other peeps.

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Western Sandpiper

We also saw some Semipalmated Plovers and Red Knots.

We left the refuge and visited the Island Nature Trail, where we had a several Common Grackles fly over, and many Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaking from the pines. One was particularly obliging and gave some amazing views.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

Aside from those two species, the trail was unproductive, so we left to look for a Song Sparrow and American Goldfinch at the Refuge Visitor Center. The mosquitoes were so bad that we couldn’t bear it any longer and decided to give up. The Chincoteague Ponies were much closer and had some Cattle Egrets hitching a ride. Funny to think that both are non-native species.

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Cattle Egrets and Chincoteague Ponies

Daniel dropped us off at the Black Duck Trail, which was also quite mosquito-infested. As we walked we heard rustling and watched a Delmarva Fox Squirrel craw up a pine and watch us from a distance. Always a thrill to see.

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel

The rest of the trail was completely dead, and since our legs were covered with wounds, we decided to check out mosquitoless Tom’s Cove one last time.

Dawn approached, and we scanned the backlit flats, seeing many Marbled Godwits, number 131. The rest of the birds were the same as earlier, but we scanned a flock of gulls looking for Lesser Black-backed Gull, to no avail. Piping Plovers posed for more photos.

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Baxter and I ended the day by ordering the traditional “Mega Fries” from Chincoteague Diner—fries covered in cheese and bacon with ranch on the side, to celebrate the “mega rarities” we found during the day.

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Mega Fries and Virgil’s Rootbeer

The three of us sat outside of the Days Inn after dark, when we heard the familiar call of a Song Sparrow, a bird we were afraid to miss. About an hour later a sweet twee twee twee… twee twee twee call was heard overhead: a migrating Solitary Sandpiper, and our last bird of the day. We celebrated and returned to our hotel room, where we calculated our total: 132 species of bird in a day. After another celebration we quickly fell asleep, exhausted from a day of intense birding.

Day Two

The Blue Ridge Great Horns slept in until 7:30 am, which felt unimaginably late compared to yesterday, and ate breakfast, leaving the hotel by 8:15.

At Queen Sound Flats, we stopped to see some Short-billed Dowitchers and a flock of Blue-winged Teals, both of which we missed on the Big Day.

We drove all the way back down the peninsula to Kiptopeke SP, where we would hawkwatch for the day. I wasn’t very fond of hawkwatching, but I was hoping to give it a try, since I knew it was quite a different experience from the Rockfish Gap HW.

We arrived and set up our scopes on the platform, meeting everyone at the hawkwatch. I started scanning and spotted some harriers and a Merlin, which was actually a kestrel. I had some learning to do. I was really enjoying the hawkwatching for about two hours, seeing many Peregrine Falcons, and my two largest kettles of Broad-wings.

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A small portion of the kettle

Noon approached and the activity dropped. I  decided to explore the area, where I found some Blue-faced Meadowhawks.

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Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Throughout the day I got the hang of accipiters, as I have had experience with them at Rockfish. The small falcons took a while to get good at, but by the end of the day I was able to identify most of the close and medium distance birds.

In the evening, the Merlin flights got started and were very entertaining. I looked around the butterfly garden, where I talked with the Monarch bander, who found a Long-tailed Skipper in the bushes at the parking lot. We walked over and sure enough, there it was. I loved watching it move from flower to flower, its iridescent-green back shining in the sunlight.

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Long-tailed Skipper

Long-tailed Skippers are common around the Gulf of Mexico and venture north during warmer months in late summer and early fall.

We departed from Kiptopeke and took the Bay-Bridge Tunnel to Island #1, where we said our goodbyes to the second best birding hotspot in the state, since the island will be closed this fall for five years—a true loss for the Virginia birding community.

We hit the road, making eBird checklists and quizzing each other on birds all the way home.

We won the challenge with a total of 132 species, and raised about $700 dollars for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. We also got a cool wooden trophy of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper for winning the Youth Competition, as well as a bronze, life-sized trophy of an American Woodcock on a wooden stand with a plaque.

A successful weekend of birding the Eastern Shore!

 

Phalaropes in the Valley

I exited the school and hopped into my mom’s car. I turned around and found my camera, binoculars, scope, and tripod lying on the back seat. My mom had come prepared.

It was looking like I would be doing yet another Thursday evening shorebird chase; two Red-necked Phalaropes were seen at the Target Distribution Center pond in the valley. This species had evaded me for quite a while, I had a last minute conflict and missed the trip to Craney Island to see them, and then had the pelagic out of Virginia Beach cancelled. Hopefully I could finally see this nemesis of mine.

After a quick stop at home and at my parent’s store, they did a trade off and my dad drove me over Afton Mountain and into Stuart’s Draft.

We turned onto Mount Vernon Road and saw the large Target Distribution Center: 18-wheelers constantly entering and exiting to deliver the merchandise.

We approached and slowly drove by the tiny roadside pond, and I spotted the two little phalaropes swimming around. Another nemesis vanquished. We parked off the side and crossed, standing next to a barb wire fence. I raised my binoculars to see the two adorable, tiny, pure white birds with needle-like bills and black ear patches, caps, and uppersides.

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Red-necked Phalarope

We were there for about an hour, watching them swim around plucking insects from the surface and occasionally flying off to snatch that one juicy bug on the other side of the pond. As they swam, they nodded their heads back and fourth like a chicken. One was a bit bolder than the other, approaching us and posing only twenty feet away.

 

Success!

My 300th VA lifer: a successful twitch

I walked the halls of Monticello High School on Thursday afternoon, heading to my English class. I did my regular email check and quickly learned that the Buff-breasted Sandpiper found Wednesday evening was still around at King Family Vineyard, a first record for my home county of Albemarle. I desperately needed the bird: I had missed it at the Staunton River. I texted Baxter only to learn he was in the car on 64, minutes away from the bird. Shortly, I heard that his twitch was successful: he saw the bird in flight amongst a flock of Killdeer.

A quick text to my mom begging to chase the bird proved successful. Now, all I had to do was pray that the little guy would stick around a bit longer.

The rest of the school day felt like an eternity, although it only lasted about three hours.

I was saved from Algebra 2 by the glorious sound of the bell; I hastily packed my things and was the first out of class. I hopped into my mom’s car and we set off for King Family Vineyards.

About thirty minutes later, we pulled off of 64 and onto the road leading up to the vineyard. I felt butterflies in my stomach: a reaction I always have in the moments leading up to the arrival of a location with a rarity.

We parked next to the wine tasting building, and I unloaded my scope, opening the legs as I approached the pasture. I was stopped by Dave, the birder who found the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and he pointed out the best place to look for the bird.

I set up my scope overlooking the marsh and pasture with the polo fields behind. I quickly picked out several Killdeer scattered throughout the fields, a good sign that the bird was in the area.

I scanned for fifteen minutes, finding lots of Killdeer, until I noticed a very distant bird on the hill. A small shorebird, very elegant in shape, and a light buff color all over. A Buff-breasted Sandpiper, my 300th VA lifebird and 350th World lifebird!

The bird was too distant for photos, so I enjoyed the scope views for several minutes, lowering the scope and showing my mom the bird. As I was watching the bird, it lifted up and flew towards me offering amazing views of the plumage and flight pattern as it approached.

The bird landed very close as shorebirds go, and I was able to appreciate its long yellow legs and short, dainty bill. I also got a couple indentifiable photos.

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Buff-breasted Sandpiper

I watched the bird for another ten minutes, marveling at the fact that the these little guys migrate from the tundra to Argentinia every Fall. I returned to the wine tasting building to find my mom sitting on the patio with a glass of white wine. She said, “I can’t wait to take you birding here again!”

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Shorebirds on the Staunton River

I gathered my things from my dad’s car and approached a Prius in the Smoothie King parking lot, where my friends Baxter and Tucker emerged with binoculars in hand. We waited in the rain for the others to arrive, and despite the weather we heard several warblers migrating overhead: a hopeful sign. Once Ezra and Logan arrived, we loaded the scopes into the car and departed.

By the time we crossed the James the sun had risen. We drove through Buckingham and into Farmville, stopping at the country store for a 50 cent Little Debbie Honey Bun, a tradition on club trips for over a year. After scarfing down the 530 calorie pastry, we loaded into the car and traveled south to the North Carolina border, where the Staunton River fed into Kerr Reservoir, and where hundreds of shorebird migrants could be found on the expansive mudflats.

We exited the car and immediately stumbled upon Adam, a skilled birder that frequents the mudflats.

As we scanned, we heard warblers calling among the woodland edge, and found a Northern Waterthrush, Pine Warblers, a Yellow-throated Warbler, an Ovenbird, a Prothonotary Warbler, and many American Redstarts.

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Prothonotary Warbler

After looking around some more in the edge, we found an Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanagers, and some Blue Grosbeaks.

We returned to the scopes and scanned, immediately noticing the multitude of Bank Swallows on the flats, as well as some Barn and Cliff Swallows. One of my more common needs for the yearlist downed.

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Bank Swallows

We found several Sanderlings on the flats, as well as the White Ibis that had been hanging around for a while. Great Egrets and both Yellowlegs covered the mudflats. We spotted a Black-bellied Plover and a Stilt Sandpiper, but some birds were too distant to identify. Several Pectoral, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers were in a mixed flock to the far right, and as we were watching them, Baxter found a Wilson’s Phalarope running on the flats, but it went into hiding behind some willows before anyone else could see them. We searched thoroughly for the bird at different angles, but were never able to relocate it. As we walked down to the other lot to continue scanning, a nice group of Caspian and Common Terns flew by.

After spending ten minutes trying to see a Ruddy Turnstone, I finally got on it. A nice bird for inland Virginia.

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Ruddy Turnstone

As we were about to depart, Adam pointed out a couple American-Golden Plovers. I got on the birds, and we found three more scattered on the distant flats. A lifebird! The birds were too distant for identifiable photos.

We loaded into the car and drove almost an hour to Staunton River SP, where we found lots of pine stands and second growth. We made a beeline for the viewing area and walked down a hill to the waterfront. From there we could see the other viewing area we had previously birded; only a half a mile of water and mudflats away.

The first thing we noticed at the viewing area was the thousands of Mayflies hanging from the branches of a nearby tree. I walked by the tree and suddenly a swarm of mayflies lifted up and started landing all over us.

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Mayflies

Some of us embraced the little bugs:

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Baxter, king of the mayflies

We scanned the mudflats as mayflies crawled on our clothes and in our hair. While trying to ignore them, we refound Baxter’s Wilson’s Phalarope, a Virginia lifebird. I watched the snow-white bird scamper around on it’s webbed feet until it flew out of sight. The cold gray plumage and elegant shape of a White-rumped Sandpiper stuck out among the peeps and yellowlegs.

We also got a much more satisfying view of the American Golden-Plovers. Since they were molting, the birds had a golden back and black belly that was beginning to fade into the drab colors of non-breeding plumage.

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American Golden-Plover

An hour or so later of scanning and mayfly swarms, we departed, checking spots near South Boston for Mississippi Kite and Eurasian Collared-Dove, neither of which we found.

We continued north through Halifax county, and I enjoyed the unfamiliar scenery of this region of the state, which I had never visited before. We passed large pine stands, second growth, pastures, and even a Bald Cypress swamp: a habitat I had never seen outside of Virginia Beach.

We arrived in Campbell County and stopped at Happy Farmer’s Ponds, where Logan said that Brown-headed Nuthatches were “guaranteed”. The small pond was surrounded by a pine forest, and cows roamed in the pastures on the opposite side of the pond. We spent a good deal of time trying to lure the birds with playback with no success, and everyone was starting to wonder if this bird was really guaranteed. We walked around the pond searching for the nuthatches, and even had a face-off with two large cows who didn’t want us to pass.

After a few minutes of sneaking by the cows, we finally heard the call of a nearby Brown-headed Nuthatch, a sound that resembles a dog’s squeaky toy. Yet another new bird I had never seen in the Piedmont. A Pine Warbler and a distant Red-headed Woodpecker were also nice to see.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

As we drove north a light rain began, and after passing Lynchburg, we stopped at Mill Creek Lake to see a recently sighted Caspian Tern, a good bird for Amherst County.

As we exited the car I spotted several terns flying over the lake, and once we set up the scopes, we identified three rare Black Terns and another tern, larger and whiter than the others. After it landed, it was identified as a Common Tern, based off of the dark carpal bar– a first county record for Amherst! Once Ezra got a photo that didn’t look like a white blob, the young birders loaded into the car, satisfied by our rare find.

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Common Tern

The remainder of the drive to Charlottesville was spent making eBird checklists and posting our Common Tern on Facebook and the listserv, and finally, we ended the epic day of birding with dinner at Chipotle.

Early migrants in the Valley

My friends Baxter and Tucker and I walked down the Rockfish Valley Trail, a series of trails nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, and the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east. We were here to look for some early flycatchers, particularly Olive-sided, because this was one of the best spots for them in the state.

We passed through the brushy field, seeing a flock of waxwings, a hummingbird, and a Traill’s Flycatcher, which unfortunately never vocalized. From there we walked along the Rockfish River and into some woodland edges, scanning every snag as we continued to the bog.

The bog was quiet, aside from a single Red-eyed Vireo. After clearing the bog we came up to an open field with many kingbirds, phoebes, and a single Least Flycatcher that posed on the fence near the edge.

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Least Flycatcher (the greatest flycatcher in my heart)

We also saw an Appalachian Brown.

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Appalachian Brown

We birded the remainder of the loop, finding a Field Sparrow, a single Broad-winged Hawk, and a small kettle of Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks.

Finding no Olive-sided or Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, we continued around Wintergreen and into Augusta county, where we planned to look for shorebirds. There, we checked Quillen’s Pond, a small pond that had recently had a Baird’s Sandpiper. Only finding a Green Heron, some Spotted Sandpipers, and a bunch of Killdeer, we decided to head towards Stuarts Draft and check the Target Distribution Center pond, where I saw my lifer Baird’s Sandpiper a year ago.

Upon our arrival we checked the nearby pond with our binoculars, finding two Semipalmated Sandpipers, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Great Egret, and three cows.

About forty minutes later we unloaded our scopes and meticulously scanned the backlit mudflats of Oakwood Pond. With much difficulty we found some Least Sandpipers and three Lesser Yellowlegs. Having great trouble identifying due to the horrible lighting and obstructed views, we decided to try viewing the pond from the semi-trailer lot on the opposite side of the pond. There, we immediately picked out a Stilt Sandpiper that had been hiding behind a small hill that blocked the pond.

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Stilt Sandpiper

We continued to scan the pond, finding a very distant Pectoral Sandpiper.

Satisfied with my Virginia lifers and yearbirds, we hopped on 11 north and stopped for some celebratory ‘Big Gulps’ at the nearest 7-Eleven. Thirty ounces of root beer later, we parked on the side of a small road overlooking a pond. As we scoured the mudflats for the recently reported Red-necked Phalarope, a horse-drawn carriage slowly passed us; the western outskirts of Harrisonburg hosted a large population of Amish settlers. With extensive searching, I found a couple Pectoral Sandpipers and a Lesser Yellowlegs, and Baxter picked out a Spotted, Least, and Solitary Sandpiper.

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We had a much better view of the Peccies this time

As we were viewing the shorbs, a nearby gunshot flushed them, and we got perfect comparison views of the different species in flight. Unsuccessful with our phalarope search, we watched dozens of Tree Swallows lined on a wire, as well as five Cliff Swallows, and departed.